Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Getting the Word Out: New Media and How to Use It

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of participating in a panel at the first ever Minnesota Theater Alliance Statewide Theater Conference. The three-day conference was held at my alma mater* St. John's University and featured keynote speakers and breakout sessions covering topics as varied as facility safety, revenue, class and equity, sound, mask-making, and the collaborative process (click here for full details on the conference schedule). I did not attend the full conference, just the session in which I participated, but from what I could tell it seemed to be a really wonderful collection of theater people sharing information and working together to make us all better. Check out the Minnesota Theater Alliance website for more information on who they are and what they do, and watch for news of next year's conference. To see some of what happened at this year's conference, search the hashtag #MTASTC on all of the social medias.

I was honored to be asked by Jenna Papke (executive director of Arts Nest) to be on a panel for a breakout session titled "Getting the Word Out: New Media and How to Use It." My fellow panelists included Quinton Skinner (senior editor of Minnesota Monthly), Pogi Sumangil (social media expert/actor/playwright), and Levi Weinhagen (of Comedy Suitcase and the Pratfalls Podcast). (To say that to be in that company was a little intimidating is an understatement - Maureen, I'm not a theater person!) The session was wonderfully casual and informal, with Jenna throwing out topics for the panel to comment on, and the audience of about 20 (a full house in the small classroom) asking questions and sharing their experiences. There were a lot of smart and experienced people in that room and we had a great discussion and threw around some good ideas about how theater artists and theater companies can use social media and bloggers to connect with their audiences and bring people into the theater. What follows is a list of some of the topics discussed:
  • Visit the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers Facebook page for a list of participating blogs (under the About section) and send us a message to invite the bloggers to your show or let us know what you're working on. Then when a blogger writes about your show or your company, be sure to share, retweet, quote, and utilize in whatever way you can. We as bloggers want more eyes on our blog, and you as theater artists want more eyes on your work. It's a mutually beneficial relationship, so don't be afraid to get to know us (even though most of us are introverts!).
  • Consider inviting theater writers to observe a rehearsal or other stage in your process. Some of us prefer to write features or preview pieces rather than reviews, and that often helps get the world out earlier. (I typically do not do preview pieces, with the volume of shows I see I just don't have the bandwidth.)
  • Have one person in your company dedicated to social media (possibly an intern, with guidance and supervision), who is responsible for both posting and responding to people who comment or ask questions. Plan out what you're going to share and when you're going to share it. People like myself who have never worked in theater are fascinated by behind the scenes photos and videos, so that's a good place to start. Take a few pictures of each stage in your process and share it with the audience so they can watch the show grow and get excited for it.
  • Plan a Twitter or Instagram "takeover," in which you give control of the account to someone in the cast or crew for a day. Have them share the fun, interesting, or even mundane things they're doing on that particular day as they get ready for or participate in the show.
  • Create a show-specific hashtag (like #GuthrieSouthPacific or #MuTot) and make sure it's listed somewhere in your program or posted in the theater so that the audience can share their thoughts and experiences about the show with others who've seen it. This creates an online discussion of the show, makes the audience feel more involved and engaged, and may also give you a place from which to pull quotes to use in marketing.
  • Share content from other sites that relate to your show or your mission. Something funny or weird or interesting that will drive traffic to your page. Just repeatedly sharing the same dry information about when and where to see your show can get boring and repetitive, so try to link it to something new and interesting.
  • Do a regular weekly post that your followers can rely on, expect, and anticipate. Doug Scholz-Carlson shared his experience as Artistic Director of Great River Shakespeare Festival, where they have a series called Sonnet Sunday that they post on their Facebook page each week. This short and easy-to-make-video of one of the cast members reading a Shakespeare sonnet has become one of their most popular features.
  • A picture is worth a thousand words, and will get more views than just text due to the algorithms employed by the social media sites. Videos are even better.
  • If you're in outstate Minnesota, try contacting the local morning shows or news programs. Small town TV might be more accessible than it is in the Cities. Or go to the local farmers market or festival and hand out fliers, coffee, anything that will get attention.
If you have any other ideas or things that have worked for you, please comment below and continue the conversation.

Towards the end of the session, the panel was asked what we love about the social media, and I didn't have a good answer. I said "social media isn't a choice," which is true; social media is how the world works now, it's how we communicate and interact with each other. But the other truth is that social media can be incredibly frustrating, especially as a business (blog, theater company, theater artist). Navigating the ever-changing rules/suggestions/algorithms of the different platforms and figuring out the best post timing/frequency/style to catch the most eyes can be a nightmare. But at its best, and the thing that I do love about it, is that social media can create a community. It allows you to connect with people who have shared interests and deepens your experience. And that community can spill over into "the real world" as you interact with people online and then maybe meet them in person through an organized meet-up, or when your paths cross out at the theater. The bottom line is that social media is a great tool for theater companies to use to help build and engage their audience, making them feel excited and a part of the work that you do. So use it!

See you next year MTASTC! In the meantime, let's continue the conversation on social media.

*Twenty years ago I graduated from College of St. Benedict/St. John's University with a major in math and a minor in German. I've been back to campus many times since (my St. Cloud family and I like to walk out to the chapel every fall), but it's been 20 years since I've stepped foot in the building known as The Quad (one of the oldest buildings on campus) where the conference was held. It was a surreal moment for me to be back in that building, in a room with German posters on the wall, talking about theater and social media (which didn't even exist when I was in school) as I guess something of an expert. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined it. How strange and wonderful is this thing called life!